CAMDEN —“Oh my gosh, I’m so muddy!”
A small girl yelped and laughed as she trudged through thick, chocolatey mud in the cool, shady forest of PVM Camp and Conference Center last Thursday, April 28, during an outdoor Earth Day celebration. There had been torrential rain all morning, and the night before, too — the event runs rain or shine, but the rain mercifully halted just before proceedings began.
The girl was walking through slippery, squishy mud that came halfway up her sneakers and had apparently taken at least one spill already, for there were large blotches of mud all over her clothing. She tried repeatedly to wipe it off, before realizing she was just smearing it around; her hands, after all, were muddy too. She threw them up and laughed, surrendering to nature — which had been the point all along.
Sixth graders from all five Preble County school districts came together at PVM to learn to enjoy and respect nature while learning real-world information and skills. No shelter, endless nature trails winding back through the deep woods, and no cell phone, for this was “No Signal” country. With the exception of a fire truck and ambulance parked at the campground entrance in case of health emergency, there was no contact with modern technology that afternoon.
A joint effort by the Preble County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Preble County Solid Waste District, the 18-year tradition hosts approximately 500 youths and features 23 presenters teaching 21 different classes on natural resource topics ranging from soil analysis and dairy farming to mosquito safety and land surveying.
“We’ve had nine pretty dry years,” said Soil and Water program administrator and technician B.J. Price, “and this is my tenth, so I feel like we’ve been pretty lucky where rain is concerned. But, you know, it’s late April, so one year, you might have temperatures in the eighties, and the next year, it might be snowing.”
“We’ve got a wide range of educational topics for the kids to learn about while they’re here. They get hands-on lessons on things like farming, mammal skulls, forestry, electrical safety, and many others. We’ve got the game warden teaching them about wildlife and wildlife furs.”
Price and his colleagues at Soil and Water coordinate the presenters and lesson plans, while their counterparts at Solid Waste make arrangements with the school systems and staff.
Soil and Water outreach coordinator Anna Smith was new to the experience.
“This is my first year, and it’s been great seeing kids get lessons on caring for the environment and learn about things that relate to their lives, like where our food comes from and maintaining water quality, because that’s important to everyone. There are a couple of sessions on honeybees and beekeeping, and they’re learning about how our food will be affected if the bee population continues to decline. These things are applicable to all of our lives.”
County commissioner Chris Day was on hand to observe and interact, and said, “This is entirely a volunteer effort. The agencies and people who come out here to put this on are all volunteering their time, and PVM donates the vacility and helps coordinate with B.J. and everyone to do this for the students. Without them and their generosity, this wouldn’t happen.
“We live in a rural county,” he said, “but it’s amazing to learn how many of the younger students in the area have never really been out into the wilderness or connected with nature in a meaningful way before coming here. It’s good for them to experience the environment that’s all around them and learn to be good stewards of the land, and also learn that the people who work for the county government are out here on their behalf, not just enforcing rules and things like that.”
Area Native American folkloric troupe the Southern Singers Drum Group took part in the event as well, teaching the native perspective on Mother Earth, or Turtle Island, and how to respect and care for her. Additionally, they treated students to Native American origin stories like “How the Skunk Got His Stripe” and led them through an animal dance.
Mark Banks, drum keeper for the Southern Singers, has taken part in the Preble County Earth Day celebration since its inception.
“My favorite part of this day is sharing with the sixth graders that every day was Earth Day for the native people. My family originated from the North Carolina/Pennsylvania/Kentucky/Ohio area, and we are descendants of the Cherokee. Every time I work with an education program, I tell the students to research their family histories. See if you can trace your ancestry back to native people. Find out what tribe they were from, how they lived. Learn how they took care of and replenished the earth. That gives you something to follow and a cause in life.”
The students went back to school with lessons they could carry forward, but the coordinators’ work is never done.
Said Price, “This afternoon, after the kids are gone, we’ll clean things up, then we’ll sit down together and write some notes…and start planning for next year.”
Reach Duante Beddingfield at 937-683-4061, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @duanteb_RH.